116th Annual Conference - Bellingham, Washington
Friday, November 9 - Sunday, November 11, 2018

Robinson Jeffers and the Poetry of Death: Personal and Public Trauma

Aubrey Geyer, Independent Scholar

The poet Robinson Jeffers enjoyed fame after WWI when his poetic attempts to cope with the trauma of war resonated with a similar public need. His declining popularity during WWII despite his consistent poetic efforts to revisit the same themes illuminates relationships between personal and public trauma, literature, and violence.


The quintessential image of the veteran is an infantry combat veteran, whose visceral and immediate experience of wartime violence produces persistent traumatic memories. However, experiences of war and of trauma are incredibly varied; increasingly so, as with modern technology the experience of war is changing faster than the conventional trauma narrative can reflect. Violence on a vast scale has a proportionally vast impact, even on the lives of those partially removed from its immediate experience. The poetry of Robinson Jeffers and his relationship with the public both reflects his own experience of the trauma of war, and offers a window into the wider impact of wholesale violence on the literary tastes of American culture.

Robinson Jeffers was excluded from service in the first world war, and endured the service of his son in the second. Though he never served in combat, he used his poetry to filter the vast cultural trauma of his society, as well as his personal struggle with despair. Even without the immediate experience of war, new technology of destruction and new methods of making that destruction constantly known in the media gave Jeffers as well as the American nation a sort of self-conscious, secondhand trauma that he struggled to resolve through poetry, philosophy, and lifestyle.

Jeffers’s first, extraordinary success represents a convergence of his own methods of dealing with trauma with the literary taste of a nation struggling to reintegrate its fractured vision of humanity after World War One. Jeffers’s poetic strategy of extravagant emphasis on violence and depravity, expressed by contemporary critics as part of the realist movement equally represented by William Faulkner, served well a nation caught in the echoes of mass disillusionment. Jeffers’s dramatic tone, valorizing the natural order and dramatizing death while castigating humanity, fed into a personal and public need to revisit traumatic revelations forced by the war.

However, Jeffers’s depression and traumatic grief persisted, and his philosophy remained intractable as public perception had to shift to accommodate the resurgence of war. Though Jeffers’s staunch isolationism in the face of the second World War has been identified by many as the turning point of his fame due to its dissonance with public opinion as fueled by patriotic propaganda, it’s necessary to view this as part of a larger pattern in Jeffers’s work. Jeffers continued to write of drama and death even as the cycle of public opinion returned to disillusionment and bitterness, with backlash against foreign-soil wars continuing into the Vietnam era, but Jeffers’s popularity never recurred. Contemporary society might be dealing with the same issues, but it demanded, as it always does, new styles; Jeffers himself remained immersed in persistent, quiet grief and depression. Thus, by the time the public was ready, perhaps, for a return of the impassioned despair of the early Jeffers, Jeffers himself had transitioned into a period of no less emotional sincerity but a more wearied bluntness than the public taste allowed. Where the public wanted style and flare as coping mechanisms, Jeffers had only persistence.